Intellectual in Translation: An Interview with Ilan Stavans

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
December 14, 2010

Ilan Stavans

From Borges to God, from Spanish to English, from questions to answers and questions with no answers; this kind of fluidity within a few short hours exemplifies the nature of Stavans himself and his wide range of interests. Later, in his office, I peruse his shelves: The History of the Conquest of Peru by Prescott, the novel 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, a game of Lotería, the collected essays of Montaigne, a large volume of photographs on state hospitals, the Hebrew dictionary of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda…. Of note also are several manuscripts in their final stages, as is typical of Stavans–several projects at once. But what strikes me in the otherwise rather sterile office is the one personal item on his shelf, a framed bar mitzvah invitation for his son Joshua Stavchansky. I ask Stavans why his son’s last name is Stavchansky and not Stavans. Stavans tells me his last name is Stavchansky as well; he never formally changed his name to Stavans. This seemingly innocuous detail adds further weight to what I’ve just witnessed on my day with Stavans. Language, religion, history, popular culture—all mixed in one.

Kevane: You serve as a bridge between the academic and the public. Do you remember the moment you realized you wanted ideas to reach beyond academic circles? When did you evolve into a public intellectual?

Stavans: Originally, I did not intend to become a writer. I had other interests when I was a young man, filmmaking chief among them. I got involved in journalism and started being active in Mexico with a couple of newspapers. It was only when I moved to the United States in the mid-1980s that I really considered in a serious fashion not only devoting myself to writing full-time, but connecting my life with the academic world. …And I think it was at that point that I shifted from simply being an intellectual, a writer, to becoming a public intellectual.

Kevane: How are public intellectuals in Mexico different from those in the United States?

Stavans: They are two different animals as far as I’m concerned. In Latin America we come from a tradition where the thinker, the intellectual, the writer, the novelist or the poet, is a dissident. [The thinker] is, quite often, someone who is able to test the status quo, the powers that be through ideas, and who takes upon herself or himself the responsibility–and sometimes it’s only an illusion, obviously–that the masses have no voice. The masses have no way of expressing themselves, so therefore the writer or the thinker is a speaker, a conduit, a microphone, or a camera.

In the United States, though there might be a few elements that are connected with that tradition of dissidents, and of being the speaker for a large silent population, it’s more the writer and the intellectual as a debater, and as an articulator of ideas in a marketplace where other ideas are challenged and tested all the time. In the United States the university and academic environment is part of this market-driven way of thinking, of acting, and of engaging the world that Americans have. That is that you put your ideas out there to be tested against others and you debate people. You might be bruised or you might punch others, but you are protected from falling because you’re part of a system that wants to have ideas tested.

Kevane: But there have been periods in the United States where academics and writers were engaged in the act of speaking for the voiceless, as you say. I’m thinking of the civil rights movements and other historical moments in the United States where the public intellectuals or writers like Pedro Pietri, Miguel Piñero, Gloria Anzaldúa, Richard Rodriguez, have acted in a similar fashion to those in Latin America?

Stavans: Absolutely. And I would say that the links or the major kinds of bridges between the two have to do with the ethnic writer, the minority writer. Black or Latino or Asian American or women, figures that are not part of the establishment. And the voice that they acquire is the voice that tests that establishment.

Kevane: You’re an admirer of the Jewish public intellectuals of the twentieth century.

Stavans: There is no democracy without intellectual debate. And intellectuals are the touchstone of that debate. Ours is an age of overabundance of information, but information isn’t knowledge. Intellectuals help society travel from information to knowledge.

Kevane: Do you lament the absence of a Lionel Trilling, an Irving Howe, and an Alfred Kazin today?

Stavans: Those three Jewish intellectuals were a byproduct of their time. Their message isn’t ours. Ideas are disseminated in a radically different way nowadays. Nowadays intellectuals need to be far more restless. Their home isn’t a periodical like Partisan Review or The New Republic but the radio, the TV screen, the blog. Intellectuals compete not against each other but against entertainment in general.

Kevane: Which of all these intellectuals do you admire the most?

Stavans: One you didn’t mention: Edmund Wilson, a non-Jew who wrote as lucidly about Communism as he did about the American Civil War, the MLA, the Iroquois, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. I admire Wilson because of the broadness of his vision and his constant desire to find new ground. He was a generalist at a time when specialization was already becoming an illness.

I like Irving Howe’s autobiography, but more so The World of our Fathers, about the lower east side and the Yiddish-speaking immigration. Alfred Kazin I find stilted. V.S. Pritchett, another goy, was a superb critic. (John Updike feels to me like a second-rate Pritchett.) I enjoy Louis Menand’s essays in The New Yorker, although he’s a critic without a heart.

Kevane: Where does your interest in Sephardic civilization come from?

Stavans: I’m an Ashkenazi. Growing up in Mexico, I had countless Sephardic and Mizrahi friends. Through them I became sensitive to ethnic differences.

Kevane: You edited The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature. Some readers find it useful though flawed because you frame Hispano-Jewish discourse within a Yiddish-Ashkenazi ethos.

Stavans: I am who I am.

Kevane: Not Sephardic.

Stavans: No, I’m not.

Kevane: Should a Sephardic editor edit such a compendium?

Stavans: By all means. I’m not an essentialist. You don’t have to be Egyptian to enjoy Naguib Mahfouz, Russian to appreciate Boris Pasternak, or Nigerian to be hypnotized by Chinua Achebe.

Kevane: Why is it that the Sephardim, their culture and literature, remain on the margin whereas Ashkenazim have moved to the forefront?

Stavans: It’s a complex question. By being a lingua franca, Yiddish created a sense of unity among Ashkenazim, but such a thing didn’t happen with Ladino. In other words, fragmentation is a feature of Sephardic civilization. There might also be a difference in cultural agency. Years ago, I asked my friend Andre Aciman, author of Out of Egypt, if there should be an effort like that of Aaron Lansky, who rescued millions of Yiddish books, with regards to Ladino literature. He thought it was a stellar idea but he didn’t believe it could emerge organically from the Sephardic community. “It probably could happen if Ashkenazim got involved.”

Kevane: The ethos of Eastern European Jews has no tolerance for the ethos of la convivencia. More explicitly, Sephardic culture existed in a level of comfort, dialogue, co-existence, intersection with ancient Arab culture impossible to imagine among Ashkenazim. What do you think?

Stavans: Each ethnic group approaches tolerance in distinct ways. Ashkenazim were at once witnesses and participants of the Haskalah, the 17th-century Jewish Enlightenment, which revolved around the concept of tolerance. After centuries of marginalization, they were invited to the banquet of European civilization, although the invitation, it turns out, was only half-hearted.

Kevane: What do you mean?

Stavans: The journey from ostracism to embrace wasn’t fully achieved. The Holocaust itself is proof. Sephardim, on the other hand, belonged to the Spanish experiment in coexistence, which stressed equilibrium in the Iberian Peninsula between the three major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. But that equilibrium is easily romanticized. There were recurrent anti-Jewish outbursts in the 14th century. The expulsion of 1492 wasn’t a sudden, unexpected act of radical exclusion; instead, there were emphatic precedents leading to it.

Kevane: Ashkenazim have made a cottage industry out of Jewish alienation, with Kafka as the leading symbol. This isn’t true or Sephardim, since during la convivencia there was a constant give-and-take.

Stavans: Untrue. La convivencia wasn’t an idyllic period. A movement of give-and-take, as you describe it, is as much a feature of Jewish life in Germany, England, France, and Italy from the 14th to the 20th century

Kevane: Identity politics has been overworked and people are wary of it as a significant point of analysis, especially in a time where everyone’s identity is so multifaceted. Yet it is a topic that will most likely remain on the radar of literary and cultural criticism because it is so rich. When you wrote The Hispanic Condition there is a certain identity sensibility or persona that reveals itself to me. In turn, in Resurrecting Hebrew that sensibility or persona sounds dramatically different. To put it simply, are you a different person when you write on Jewish issues than on Latino issues? Lionel Trilling has stated that the best place for a critic to be is in-between.

Stavans: It’s an excellent question, especially because I confess not to fully know how to respond. I think that every piece one writes is automatically but unconsciously defined by the reader that it is targeted to. But it’s not as if when one sits down one thinks, “I am going to write this for my friend Juanita or my friend Pedrito.” You know the type of reader because of the medium that you choose, not actually the face or the name of the individual.

For instance, when writing a book like The Hispanic Condition, I knew that it was in English, that it was going to be published by a trade publishing house and thus that the audience was English-speaking U.S. residents, mostly Latino but also non-Latino. My goal in that book was to not exclude either population, Latino or non-Latino, because I didn’t want one to eliminate or cancel out the other.

When I write a piece for the Washington Post, there’s a reader that I expect that reads the Washington Post and a different one for say El País. But I think it goes far beyond that, and that is where I don’t know fully how to respond to your question. I do think there’s a different sensibility when it comes to the identity of being Jewish and the identity of being Latino or the identity of being an American. I think that though all of them may fit together, they manifest themselves as separate when I start writing, for example, a piece on Jewishness; I do think that there are certain elements deep inside me that are activated that don’t get activated when I’m writing for a broad Latino audience.

For me the in-between that you invoke from Lionel Trilling is an interesting concept. I don’t want to feel that I can only do the Jewish or the American or the Hispanic. Or only an essay and not a short story. I want to jump. I want to travel. I want to navigate across genres and across themes. I get impatient with myself when I feel that I am repeating something that I’ve done.

Kevane: On the other hand you reflect something different than, say, Saul Bellow, who would say, “I’m not a Jewish writer, I’m just a writer”.

Stavans: I think I would say that I’m a Jewish writer, or I’m a Hispanic writer, or I’m an American writer.

Kevane: Which is the most accurate?

Stavans: It depends. I do think that we come colored or defined by a certain sensibility, but I think those can change. They are like an actor’s mask: you use them according to circumstances. None of them is set. When I say this is the Jewish sensibility, the Jewish sensibility in and of itself is in constant mutation, in constant transformation. And I think what is attractive to me in all this is how I can be surprised and I can surprise others by this.

Kevane: What about hiding between languages, a view set forth by Yehuda Amichai? You’re fluent in Spanish and English, Yiddish and Hebrew. How does language shape who you are?

Stavans: I always write in translation. In fact, I’m convinced that all writers, even those that are monolinguals, create their craft in translation.

Kevane: What do you mean?

Stavans: In and of itself, the act of writing is a form of translation: from thought to sentences. Think of the Bible: it is written not in a divine but human language, yet in order to be read by billions of people, translation from one human language to another is required. The vast majority of readers of the Bible approach it through a translation. For them the translation serves the function of the original. Likewise the rest of literature: my Emma Bovary isn’t French although she comes from the French.

Kevane: We are back to the in-between. Thank you.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by